FSU Classmate and winner of the 2010 Nicholl Fellowship Micah Ranum very kindly answered some questions I had for him about winning and what his life has been like since.
1. What script did you win with, what’s it about, what do you love about it?
My script is entitled “A Good Hunter.” The story is about a reformed hunter living in isolation on a wildlife sanctuary in Northern Minnesota. He becomes involved in a deadly game of cat and mouse when he sets out to save a young girl from a vicious killer in the wilderness.
I have found that in order for me to really become excited about a project, I need to love the characters. As a writer you spend countless hours with your characters and if you don’t find some reason to get to know them well, the script just doesn’t stand a chance. So while I love writing suspenseful moments, those moments mean very little if you don’t find a deeper connection with the characters and the world they inhabit. For me, Rayburn, the protagonist in A Good Hunter, was a guy I liked quickly. The idea of this man, who is a reformed hunter who now takes care of animals on this isolated wildlife sanctuary, spoke to me. You have to get invested in what it is the main character is after, and in order to do that you have to become attached to the hero of the story.
2. What’s your background? Where are you from, how long have you been writing, how many scripts have you written? Do you want to be a writer/director?
I am originally from Minnesota and have been writing screenplays for nearly the past ten years. Some years have been much more prolific than others, but all together I have written ten feature scripts, most of which I would never show to anyone.
Other than writing, I also went to film school at Florida State University where I earned an MFA in film production. While there, I wrote and directed five short films and had the pleasure of working on countless other students films.
I do hope to direct someday, but as of now I really just hope to forge a career in writing and hopefully directing will fall into place as a result.
3. Have you applied to other contests or festivals? With what results?
The 2010 Nicholl competition was the first screenwriting competition I have ever entered and will likely be the last. As a winner of a fellowship, I don’t believe I qualify for most other competitions.
4. Did you get feedback from nicholl on your writing? Once you were a finalist what was the process from there to winner?
I did not receive any feedback from the Nicholl Fellowships, but I did not ask for it either so I’m not sure what their official policy is on sharing feedback.
Once I reached the finalist level in the competition I was asked to submit a brief letter describing my background and my aspirations for the future, as well as a description of a script that I would like to spend my time working on during the fellowship year. Overall the process was simple and painless. The waiting, on the other hand, was a nightmare! But when the call came from the director of the fellowships, Greg Beal, I couldn’t have been more elated. It was such an exciting moment and much needed validation.
5. Did you meet the other winners? Did anything seem to separate them from others?
I met the current fellows and finalists and also had the honor to meet several brilliant past fellows as well. Most writers tend to live such isolated existences that it is hard to discern what separates a professional from an amateur. How do ten scripts rise to the top in a competition like the Nicholl Fellowships? If I knew the answer to that question I would be happy to share, but I am not sure anyone knows that answer.
There are so many ingredients necessary to make a good script great that if just a few are missing, the story just won’t feel quite right. Basically, tell an entertaining story and make sure it is full of conflict with dimensional characters that a reader and an audience can fall in love with. But first and foremost, fall in love with your own story so that you can spend lots of time necessary to rewrite your work.
6. Tacky question: have you gotten the money? Have you bought anything exciting? Did you have a day job and did you get to quit it? Has your life been turned upside down with calls for screenplay deals and agents?
The fellowship money is not given in one lump sum. Instead it is dispersed in five payments over the course of the fellowship year. But after I got my first check, I did purchase a new Macbook Pro. I had been using a touchy nine year-old imac that is well past retirement age.
Before I won the fellowship I was fortunate to be writing fulltime. My wife and I moved to Los Angeles without much of a backup plan. Once we arrived, and I was able to secure a manager we decided that I would spend a few months writing full time while she would support us. A few months extended into over a year, but we kept seeing progress and it just seemed like the struggle would be worth it in the end. The Nicholl is a huge step and the sacrifices that we made have worked for us, but it has not been easy. While I have supplemented our income with small amounts of production work from time to time, I have been lucky enough to really spend my time working on the craft of screenwriting.
My life hasn’t been turned upside down yet, but doors continue to open. The script has garnered a lot of attention and I do expect good things to happen in the coming year. I already had a manager and an agent so I was not looking to sign elsewhere. But from what I gathered, the writers who did not have representation found it quickly.
7. There’s always grumbling about the race, sex, geographic locale, and genre of the majority of Nicholl winners, though the first three line up pretty closely with submissions. Do you have any thoughts on that? How does it feel to have won with a fairly atypical genre?
Personally, I think the competition is about as perfect as one could expect. The blind submission process ensures that everyone gets a fair chance. No script contains information about the age, gender, etc. of the writer. With that said, if a script comes by about a menopausal woman taking a road trip with her 3 dearest friends, I’d wager that it wasn’t written by a 22 year old guy. Nor is a gratuitously violent slasher flick filled with teen sex usually written by a 50 year-old woman. In that regard, the process is a little subjective, but I think good work usually gets recognized. But gender and race issues are a much larger sociological issue that cannot be so easily pinpointed and dissected in a screenwriting competition.
Geographic locale is simple. Most people who take their work seriously, move to the location that best fits their needs. If you want to become a country singer, move to Nashville; if you want to study Chimpanzees in their native habitat, move to Africa; if you want to be involved in the film industry, Los Angeles is where the industry is. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it from somewhere else, it only means that it’s that much easier to surround yourself with like-minded peers.
It was exciting to win with a thriller; however, I do believe that even genre scripts need to have a good dramatic through line. We have to like the characters and we have to root for them to succeed. Every good script needs several layers to really work on an emotional level.
8. You had a manager who sent this script out to the tracking boards about a year ago. Did she help you with the script? Did you make any changes before sending it to nicholl? Did you get any meetings off of it then?
My manager certainly helped develop the script. I think a good manager will do that, but in the end it is still up to the writer to take those notes and execute. But a good manager will point out the weak moments and should push a writer to do their best work.
I did not make any changes to the script before submitting to the Nicholl competition. I was already working on other projects and felt that “A Good Hunter” was in a good place to submit to the Nicholl.
When the script initially went out I think I had around thirty meetings. After winning the Nicholl, I probably had another fifteen or twenty meetings and they still seem to be popping up several months later.
9. Any advice or recommended resources, books or websites on writing or the business? Words of wisdom for people who are older than 22 or don’t live in hollywood but still want to make it?
There are tons of great books on writing including Save the Cat, Story by Robert Mckee, books by Linda Seger and of course Sid Field. But other than reading those books, study the types of movies that you would like to write, read as many scripts as you can, but most importantly write. I’ve had days where I’ll read all the tracking boards and screenwriting blogs, read chapters in a screenwriting book, and then break down a movie or two, but at the end of the day, I hadn’t written a word. All of that busy work is important but you have to write – make a schedule that you can stick to. The only way to improve is to repeat the process over and over.
And most importantly, learn to rewrite your work. First drafts are never very good no matter who you are. Anyone who thinks they can write one draft and be done is delusional. There are many layers that make up a good script and most of those do not show up until rewrites.
10. What’s next? What are you currently working on?
I am currently writing two more spec screenplays. I couldn’t be more excited about both projects. But have found it never seems to get any easier. It takes hard work to write a script and maybe a touch of insanity to do it over and over and over.
Thanks a lot, and again, huge huge congratulations!